Since 2006, Security Council resolutions aimed at compelling Iran to halt its nuclear activities have not only been counterproductive, but they have undermined the Council’s legitimacy even further. This is not just because the Security Council has sheltered an “Axis of Evil” nation from the current global financial crisis by cutting its ties to the doomed market. It is also because the Council’s irrational and illegal demands no longer suit Iran’s new stature within the regional and international conjuncture.
The balance of power has changed in the Middle East in Iran’s favour and this should be reflected in the Security Council’s policies. The Security Council can only obtain results from Iran if it abandons its obsolete, confrontational approach and recognize Iran as a significant regional power. In concrete terms, this means that the Security Council should put a moratorium on the sanctions and reassign Iran’s dossier back to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It must also restore Iran’s trust in the “international community” by establishing a sustainable cooperation regime in which Iran would play the role it deserves as a regional power.
However, there is a long way to go to rebuild that trust. Indeed, Iran’s history with the Security Council is a rather bleak one because of the Council’s rather “selective” approach to collective security.
A History of Unjust Bitterness: The Oil Nationalization Episode
Iran still remembers the Security Council’s attempt to quash Iran’s efforts to nationalize its oil industry in 1951. Iran’s effort to repossess its sole source of income from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) was dubbed a “threat to international peace and security” in a resolution introduced by the United Kingdom. This revealed the tendency of major powers to use the Security Council as an instrument of intimidation at the expense of Iran’s right to self-determination. The Security Council displayed its predisposition to use the discretion afforded by Article 39 of the United Nations Charter (to determine what constitutes a “threat” to peace) in a manner that would only serve the economic interests of one of its permanent members. Needless to say, all subsequent proposals to amend Article 39 to specify the criteria for threats have been rejected. The Iranian experience testifies to the fact that the Council is not bound by an objective policy in making its determinations.
The Iran-Iraq War: The Security Council’s Passive Aggressiveness
Iran also remembers when the Security Council remained silent as Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied over 30,000 square kilometers of Iranian territory—in violation of the June 13, 1975 Treaty on International Borders and Good Neighbourly Relations. Iraq’s military intervention was a violation of its conventional bilateral obligations and a breach of Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter, which in principle the Security Council should have enforced. By any interpretation, Iraq’s use of force is defined as an act of aggression under Article 3 of the General Assembly’s 1974 Definition of Aggression resolution. Thus, Iraq should have been condemned for committing acts against international peace, as provided in Article 5(2) of the aforementioned resolution and as prescribed by customary law and the binding text of the Charter. But the Security Council chose not to intervene immediately. In fact, it took the Council almost a week to respond to the attacks, before modestly calling upon both parties to “refrain immediately from any further use of force.” Iraq’s premeditated act of aggression was neither explicitly mentioned, nor was the aggressor ordered to withdraw its forces from Iranian territory.
The Security Council’s silence in the previous example becomes even more questionable when compared to similar circumstances. For instance, the Security Council reacted much more swiftly when Iraq invaded Kuwait ten years later. Less than six hours after receiving the first reports of the Iraqi incursion into Kuwait, the Council adopted Resolution 660—which condemned the invasion and demanded an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Iraq to the pre-war borders. By contrast, in the Iran-Iraq war it had waited for the Iraqi military to advance deep into Iran’s territory, providing Saddam Hussein with the upper hand in the subsequent cease-fire negotiations.
In fact, the Council did not question the legality of the Iraqi attack against Iran in any of the resolutions following the initiation of hostilities. In 1986, after six years of war had caused over half a million Iranian deaths and the displacement of over 1.5 million people, the Security Council contented itself to deplore “the initial acts which gave rise to the conflict between Iran and Iraq” in Resolution 582. It refrained once again from explicitly naming the aggressor. Amazingly, none of the Security Council resolutions mentioned even succinctly Hussein’s three-year, illegal occupation of Iranian land. After all, Saddam Hussein was a major Western and Soviet ally in the 1980s.
Resolution 598 of July 20, 1987 is equally disappointing. In this resolution, which was issued nearly seven years after the beginning of hostilities, the Security Council determined the existence of “a breach of the peace as regards the conflict between Iran and Iraq” and ”demanded that the parties observe an immediate cease-fire […] and withdraw all forces to the internationally recognized boundaries without delay.” But instead of defining Iraq as the aggressor, the Security Council again simply deplored “the initiation and continuation of the conflict.” The aggressor and the victim were once again treated equally.
The Security Council’s and Iraq’s War Crimes: The Morbid Silence
The Security Council also disappointed with respect to Iraq’s violations of humanitarian law. Despite the fact that Iraq was a party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, Iran conclusively demonstrated that Iraq used chemical weapons against the Iranian military and civilian population. The Council remained mute on the subject until six years after the beginning of the war.
Despite numerous instances in which Iraq had used chemical weapons, the term “chemical weapons” only appeared in a resolution in 1986. The Council timidly deplored “the escalation of the conflict, especially territorial incursions, the bombing of purely civilian centres, attacks on neutral shipping or civilian aircraft, the violation of international humanitarian law and other laws of armed conflict and, in particular, the use of chemical weapons contrary to obligations under the 1925 Geneva Protocol.” No further action was taken against Saddam Hussein. Instead of laying the blame on Iraq, the Security Council slyly invoked “both parties” in each reference to the use of illicit weapons. There was not a shred of evidence suggesting that Iran had also used such an arsenal.
In total, Iraq dropped over 360 chemical bombs on Iran against both military and civilian targets, resulting in more than 100,000 casualties. Today, between 45,000 to 55,000 Iranians are still suffering from excruciating skin blisters and respiratory problems as a result of their direct exposure to these weapons. Each year many children are born with deformities and chronic disabilities related to the mothers’ exposure to chemical warfare. For millions of Iranians, these victims’ agony is still a vivid reminder of the international community’s morbid silence in the face of the Iraqi regime’s undisputable war crimes.
The Security Council’s Tired Pattern
Today, Iranian public opinion and the political establishment perceive the Security Council’s sanctions against Iran as yet another attempt by entrenched powers to obstruct the country’s development. This time, the conflict is over Iran’s nuclear program. The West’s failure to provide compelling evidence of Iran’s deviation from a peaceful program further reinforces this perception. In fact, the public is well aware that the IAEA has conducted scrupulous inspections of Iran’s military and nuclear facilities, including at least nine unannounced visits in the past few months. So far, all IAEA reports have exonerated Iran of allegations that its peaceful nuclear program had progressed to a weapons program. The IAEA and American, European, and Israeli intelligence communities have never confirmed the existence of a non-peaceful nuclear program in Iran. The IAEA reported in its February 2006 report (GOV/2006/15) that it “has not seen any diversion of nuclear material to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices,” and the Agency’s position has not changed to this date. Therefore, the Security Council’s obstinate portrayal of Iran’s nuclear program as a “threat to international peace and security” is as discredited in the Iranian court of public opinion as the Council’s similar understanding of Iran’s attempt to nationalize its oil industry in the 1950s.
A New Approach Needed
Today the strategic landscape has changed, and most experts agree that Iran has become a regional power. It is perhaps the only local actor in the Middle East that can contribute to the stabilization of Iraq and Afghanistan and facilitate the United States’ exit from its current crisis. Since the balance of power has greatly shifted in its favour, Iran can neither be omitted in the Middle Eastern equation nor can it be manipulated or coerced as in the 1950s and 1980s. The world needs Iran to stabilize the region and to contribute to international peace and security.
Iran can very well afford to disregard any resolution emanating from the Security Council. This not just because Iran’s coffers are filled with petrodollars and its influence in the region is growing. It is also because the United States is militarily and financially paralyzed. Furthermore, the instability of the global financial markets has rendered futile and irrelevant any effort to isolate Iran by extending sanctions against it. The sanctions only role is to inflame Iranian public opinion without achieving the desired results.
The only way forward must be to engage Iran in genuine negotiations. International peace and regional stability have long been undermined by an unreasonably protracted enmity between Iran and the United States. Both nations need a shift of paradigm characterized by a clear rupture with hostile rhetoric and outdated policies. The new approach must aim to establish a sustainable cooperation regime that would both secure Iran’s long-term interests, including its inalienable rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and guarantee its cooperation in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the Middle East peace process.
In order to persuade Iran to cooperate on Middle Eastern security matters and its nuclear program, it is imperative to first address Iran’s insecurity. Nuclear states surround Iran. Hostile Arab governments have territorial claims over large swaths of Iran. Terrorist and separatist groups, such as Jondollah in the Sistan-Baluchestan province and Khouzestan Arab separatists, are being financed by external forces. American troops are stationed at Iranian borders and their warships, though technically in international waters, cruise only a few minutes from Iranian shores. Iran will not comply with any demand until Western powers genuinely ally these concerns.
The first concrete step towards a new approach is to prevent a manufactured “Iran threat” from becoming the cornerstone of the new American administration’s foreign policy. The terminology used to describe Iranians must be more culturally sensitive. For instance, the new American administration must avoid condescending terms such as “carrots and sticks”– which is meant for donkeys rather than human beings in the Iranian cultural context– must be avoided by the new American policy-makers because they will be counter productive to the trust-building process. As a practical measure, Iran’s nuclear case should be withdrawn from the Security Council’s agenda and sent back to the IAEA, the sole UN institution technically qualified to review the matter. This move would not only “depoliticize” Iran’s nuclear question and pave the ground for a conclusive agreement, but it would also constitute a great step towards a genuine US-Iran rapprochement. The next American president should seize this opportunity, without any precondition, and put this high on his agenda.
Reza Nasri is an international lawyer with a degree in law from the
University of Montreal. He is the co-founder of “Roads to Peace,” a
foundation that aims to facilitate the Iran-US rapprochement through
“people-to-people” diplomacy. He was a counsel at the “Clinique
Internationale de Défense des Droits Humans” in Montreal, Canada,
through which he has cooperated on various research projects with the
International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) in Paris. He was a
member of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies in Toronto,
Canada. He currently resides in Geneva and works at the Graduate
Institute of International and Development Studies. This article, first published in the Harvard International Review, only
represents his personal views and not of any of the organizations or
institutions cited above.